bailey macabre

Saskatchewan Archives Board / Accession R96–472

segregation and suffering: a look into canada’s indian hospitals

Most Canadians are familiar with the words ‘residential school’, yet somehow completely unaware of the segregation and suffering that took place within Canada’s Indian* Hospitals. 

The Indian* hospital originated from government funded Christian missionary efforts, in which rudimentary hospital care was given to reserves throughout the country. Following the Second World War, the government aggressively expanded the efforts, and the Indian* hospital was born.

The hospitals were seen as the answer to the deplorable conditions within the residential school system. Tuberculosis was running rampant, due to the overcrowding and undernourishment of the children. The hospitals were meant to isolate individuals who suffered from TB from the rest of the group, but they also functioned as a form of racial segregation, ensuring Indigenous people were kept out of “white” hospitals.

Initially, the hospitals were welcomed by First Nations people, as access to health care was a treaty right and was something much needed by the community. Unfortunately, as Indian* hospitals were often built next to “white” hospitals, the racial inequality was hard to ignore.

Due to a lack of government funding, as the health concerns of Indigenous people were /are not considered a priority, Indian* hospitals were often overcrowded, in dire need of upgrading and renovations to ensure they were sanitary places for sick individuals, and horrendously understaffed. It was hard to find staff that were willing to work in these unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and unfortunately, much of the staff took their frustrations out on the patients. This was in stark contrast to the “white” hospitals nearby, that were well-staffed, usually very modern institutions.

The treatment of patients echoed the inequality as well. In the 40s and 50s, non-Indigenous people with tuberculosis were treated as outpatients. They were seen as capable of self-care, and were usually prescribed drugs that they could take in the comfort of their own homes. First Nations people were seen as unable to care for themselves, so invasive surgery, intense drug treatment, and hospital confinement, sometimes for years at a time, were seen as the only option.

Inside the hospitals, traditional Indigenous healing techniques were abandoned in favour of “modern” medical procedures. This ensured the hospitals functioned as another apparatus meant to assimilate Indigenous people and remove them from their traditional ways.

The Indian Act eventually outlawed Indigenous people from refusing to see a doctor, refusing treatment, or attempting to leave a hospital. These were actions punishable by law, so even if a First Nations person wanted to leave, they were unable to. If they managed to get away and were caught, they’d either be sent back to the hospital and restrained, or sent to prison. If an individual died while in the care of the Indian* hospital, the body would not be returned to the family unless they paid for the transport costs. Unfortunately, as many First Nations families lived in poverty, this was near-impossible. If a body wasn’t returned to its family, which it rarely was, it would be buried in an unmarked grave in the closest cemetery.

Years later, survivors came forward with their stories and experiences of being in these hospitals. Many people reported feeling scared, vulnerable, and unable to stand up for themselves due to the language barrier. Furthermore, they were forced to undergo unwanted surgeries; they were experimented on without their consent, both for anti-tuberculosis medications and for a study on hypothyroidism in “Native races”. Children would be restrained in their beds or via plaster casts on their legs. Many people never understood the treatment they were receiving, and often no attempts to explain their treatment were made.

The record keeping was sloppy and virtually nonexistent, but some survivors reported having lungs and ribs removed in experimental treatments, leaving them disabled for the remainder of their lives. Many patients who suffered from TB were forced to remain on bed-rest for years, even after they stopped treating patients this way in “white” hospitals.

In an interview, Sharon Whonnock describes being tied to a bed, only to be released for eating, clothing changes, and to use a bedpan — their only form of restroom. She recalls an instance where she was feeling ill and threw up her meal, only to have a nurse beat her with a rod and force her to eat the vomit. Furthermore, she recalls being the victim of multiple sexual assaults throughout her time there, and unfortunately, there are hundreds whom share similar stories. It was common for victims to witness the physical and sexual assaults of other patients.

If patients were seen as troublesome, or a flight-risk, they would be put into body casts for no medical reason — only to prevent them from leaving or fighting back.

Many of the victims are still coming forward with their stories today. Despite being from various places in Canada, and of various ages and backgrounds, their stories all share common threads. Sexual and physical abuse were rampant, and once the individuals were released from hospital, the mental and emotional damage began to take its toll.

The last of these hospitals closed in 1981. This is something that happened in Canada as recent as 40 years ago, and there are so few Canadians who even know the history. Unfortunately, this is another grievous example of how our invisibility allows for terrible, brutal things to happen to our people. As seen with the MMIWG inquiry, a combination of systemic racism, apathy, and ambivalence has cost us… everything.

Despite its friendly outward appearance and smiling leaders, Canada is a horribly racist country that has committed acts of torture, segregation, and genocide against the very people it took its land from in the first place. There is a very obvious sentiment flowing through its people — that Indigenous people should just “get over it”, and that these things happened “so long ago”.

These are appallingly ignorant ways of thinking, as if the only atrocity ever committed against us was colonization. It’s been centuries of systemic abuse and racism, much of which still occurs. Just take a look at the number of First Nations communities fighting against the pipelines, or the number of Indigenous women who are still missing, or the number of people who live on reservations that don’t have access to clean drinking water. These are just a few of the issues that continue to affect us to this very day.

I only hope that Canadians are willing to listen to the voices of its Indigenous people, and really hear what we are saying. We’ve been an invisible, disposable minority for long enough, and we’ve grown tired of staying quiet.

*Indian is used in a historical context, and should not be used when describing First Nations people

originally published on, 2019, written by bailey macabre

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